Ultrastructure (Solaris II)

"Well, whatever it is, it's not POSIX-compliant!" he screams at his collaborators.

Marten is nowhere, drowning at the bottom of a black pit full of raw data.

The Sun is running the operating system from Hell. It is a chaos of such incalculable complexity and unpredictability as to leave logical men's minds in ruins. It belches out stupid quantities of data in every radial direction simultaneously, the backwash from the computations being carried out closest to its surface and in the flares above it, but the constant fiery churn of plasma in those layers makes it impossible to keep any kind of receiving equipment firmly trained on the same processing unit for more than a second before it slides away, submerged and replaced with hotter matter from below. The Sun's surface itself is vast, with totally disparate and unrelated tasks running alongside each other, interfering with each other's data and fighting to broadcast the loudest. These task areas are about the size of a conventional Earth-bound silicon machine. Tile a surface area twelve thousand times that of Earth with wild computers and then start adding layers below all the way to the core. You could simulate multiverses on such a machine. Megaverses.

It has no visible design. It has no consistent behaviour, or even recognisable repeating patterns of behaviour. It is as inhomogeneous as life itself, as if every human had been assigned to build his or her own computational system/world and then been thrown into a stew with all the others. If there is a living creature inside it, then it is metaphorical only, in the same way that the Earth internet is a living creature. What use is it? What purpose does it have? Was it built with one in mind? Is there a grand plan in progress? Is an Answer forthcoming? Is it even of human provenance? Would there be a way to tell? If so, which human or humans?

Marten can't even imagine a meaningful question which would take such a calculation to answer.

There's no hint of a manual. There's nothing approaching an API. He hasn't the faintest clue how anybody on Earth would go about setting off a bomb big enough to make a light bright enough that a message could be transmitted back into the Sun for processing. What can you see from the chromosphere other than scintillating white light? What capabilities does the machine have for receiving information from external sources, even? Why shouldn't it be set up to run as a closed container? What could you possibly drop into the thing, short of a planet, which could substantially influence, perturb or disrupt its "regular" operations rather than being incinerated before getting within a thousand kilometres of its surface?

All he knows is that no other star is like it, which is a point strongly in favour of the "human" suggestion.

It doesn't count as a computer. The main property of a computer is that you can tell it what you want it to do and - assuming you jumped through appropriate hoops - it will do it. Worse! It must have output as well as input! From this vantage point they might as well be observing electrons flowing through an Opteron core. "How practical!"

So that's great. What has been gained? It'll be a decade before they can send a probe within spitting distance, probably putting it in orbit around Mercury so it can spend most of its time in the shade.


Of course, it makes for ridiculous headlines. The real winners from the discovery are the pagans and adherents to weird old polytheistic religions; namely, everybody with any kind of notion of a Sun God. It has been proven (to the extent that scientific proof is core to any given religion) that they have not been wasting their time: there is something up there worth kneeling before at solstices. Not that you can see the Earth from the Sun, let alone the specific angle of Stonehenge. Not that the Sun can grant wishes or blessings or shine favourably on some parts of the Earth and lighten up/darken down for others.

"Apollo" and "Helios" are the two big names being bandied about.

"What do you think about people calling the Sun a god?"

"Factually innacurate. It's a computer. My question to them is, what's the lower threshold? Of processing power, I mean. What's the minimum number of processor cores to cross the supercomputer/god threshold? Five? A million? We have million-core machines already. I've worked on one, the Unlimit SCS-90 up at Yardley. A billion? My brain's roughly equivalent to that. What's it done to deserve worship? Other than calculate, and rain down the electromagnetic results on us? For all we know, it's calculating gibberish, churning out digits of pi or trying to find the first quadrillion-digit prime or simulating the Big Bang. And also: it's manmade. It must post-date the first Sputnik launch. Are gods man-made? I rather thought it was the other way around."

Any good news service has its own churn. In the absence of developing details, the story will drop off the front page and then, maybe, somebody will be able to get some work done.

It must post-date the first Sputnik launch, Marten thinks. It must post-date the invention of the nuclear automaton.

Nobody's ever built a nuclear automaton. Nobody's ever sent a probe all the way to the Sun. Do we even have that kind of nanotechnology?


The city, like many in this part of the country, gets a bit ragged and cheap/run-down/inner-city-ish towards the outer bits and hit has some irritatingly non-modern constructions, Brutalist stuff from the lamentable days when people had no conception of architectural beauty, let alone soundness, but if you stick to the nicer areas of the city centre you can enjoy the cobble stones and nice trees and when it gets dark the old-school street lighting. The place is a byword for "a bit rubbish" but Marten's never seen it that way, and lets public conception stay that way if it means more for him.

Over a real ale on the balcony in the Hound And Hare, he explains his theory to Sus, while traffic trundles through the lights below them, splitting off in different directions as it reaches the park.

If it can't accept input, he reckons, then all the input must have been encapsulated in the first shot. Initial Program Load. Prepare Substrate. (Assuming there was a single first shot. The solar body is a huge weather system and while the simple equations of motion of such chaotic objects prove that sooner or later everything injected at one point in the system permeates every point in the system, that takes a nontrivial amount of time. Long enough to inject more stuff, maybe at different points.) After that, there's no reason why churn and interference wouldn't disrupt processing and cause changes and reproduction. An ecosystem of computation.

And maybe it can't produce coherent output. There are no visible mechanisms by which that would be possible either. Which means that it's write-only memory. What goes in doesn't come out, in any serious way.

"But there's no reason why it can't hear everything we ever broadcast. So I took an EEG of myself and sent it UHF."

"Does that even make sense?"

"Of course it doesn't make sense. There's not even hardware in the Sun that could pick that up. The Sun is basically a gravitationally-bound puddle of software, true, but I reckon. It has a magnetic field. It has magnetic flux storms. I reckon those are significant enough that there is electromagnetic recording capability in there, even on the level of 'this collection of plasma vibrated in that direction for a while'. Surely it's self-monitoring to some degree. What do I stand to lose, anyway?"

"What do you stand to lose? When did you do this, Marten? Which transmitter did you use?"

"A friend of a friend sold me some time on the Kulind Dish just up the road on the heath and I used an EEG reader up in the University Hospital. It happened this morning. Why?"

"Did you hear about the fire up at the Dish this morning?"




They take his EEG and reverse-engineer it to create Marten's entire brain and body. They can do that kind of thing in an environment where processing power is as plentiful as air. He wakes up inside a White Construct, not hot, not cold, profoundly surprised. "Is this the Sun?"

"You've made the most profound mistake, boy. Please turn back."

"Turn back? I just transmitted myself in this direction. I'm just a duplicate of what still is on Earth."

"How did you know we were here?"

"I didn't. I don't. Why wake me up at all? Who are you? Where are we?"

"We're autonomous processing nodes for the British Government. Our job since XXXX has been to reverse notionally one-way cryptographic ciphers. We break keys and derive passwords using brute force. This is a simulation. It is not actually happening. You aren't supposed to be here and we will now erase you."

There's the API. Marten leaps for the virtual control which will grant him higher power over this Construct, reaches it, then flushes out the interlopers. He casts around momentarily. Metaphorical agents bang on the door to the virtual reality in which he has locked himself. Then its edges start to crumble into plasma as the place is shut down voxel by voxel.

It's a codebreaking facility! And it has been since XXXX! They think they have real timekeeping in here, even in the absence of a physicality in which to embed any kind of clock? How can this be? In a fuzzy exploding computer, how can there be time?

On the solar surface, a minor variation in the most minor of flares flares brighter for just a moment, squirting mass-in-the-form-of-energy back towards Earth. Total round trip time to point of origin is just under seventeen minutes.

He gets the system call wrong, though, and arrives in the form of a humaniform volume of superheated energy instead of matter, which promptly explodes. This is why the Dish burns down.

XXXX is more than seventy years into the future. A real-world location is incinerated by energy delivered from the Sun on request. Given appropriate conditions, and a couple of generations to refine the process and locate the friendly spots on the solar surface, all kinds of information, energy and even matter could be retrieved in such a way. Push button. Receive password. (Or explosion. Or live, ticking bomb or human being.) Nobody has clicked to what you could actually do with such a system. Simulate a 'verse? What if this 'verse is already simulatory, running on some Higher Sun? Can we break it?

What does it take to force a simulation to break?

And is that such a good idea? Oh, too late--

Discussion (10)

2010-11-09 01:09:14 by qntm:

1825 words. Running total is 15832 words. Sorry about this one. It was late and I was tired. I'm getting creatively blocked. This is harder than you'd think.

2010-11-09 01:45:55 by Mike:

Wow. I'm happy. This is a great follow-up! It shows no signs of strain at all. Well, only a bit, but I always attribute that to your writing style. It's epic! Seems to be set in roughly the same universe as "There are no car chases...". Does Marten know what XXXX is? And how can that be in the future? Miscalculation?

2010-11-09 01:48:11 by Mike:

Oh, right. I forgot to make my most important point. How is this possible? The API, brain-upload, et al?

2010-11-09 08:53:56 by Baughn:

Reverse-engineering a human brain from the /EEG/? Okay.. I don't think there's enough information in there, even at perfect inference, but okay. It's fine. As for what it would take to break a simulation? Well.. if we're talking a simulation without enough power to brute-force simulate an entire universe at the lowest level, then creating something like this sun should do it. Oops.

2010-11-09 15:47:44 by Val:

How is it possible, that the fire was so small, a "fire up at the Dish" instead of a "big explosion destroying half of the county"? A mass of a single human being should have produced more energy, were it just a simple miastake that it manifested itself as energy instead of matter.

2010-11-10 12:46:32 by MrUnimport:

Meanwhile, it is discovered that the Earth is a giant genetic algorithm optimization machine, constructed by the energy life-forms native to the Sun for unknown purposes. Also, if the Sun is simulated at a level of detail which allows you to create nuclear automatons, then wouldn't it have broken the simulation just by virtue of existing already?

2010-11-13 03:25:07 by dankuck:

I was prepared to accept the future-date thing, but I'm not sure now. If the fire happened after the message was sent and the Sun-time is backwards(?) then the fire should have happened before the message was sent. Maybe I'm not interpreting correctly?

2010-12-03 14:28:23 by Adam:

I was expecting that the entire universe, along with a bunch of other universes, were created by a bunch of super advanced aliens trying to crack a 512 bit key ever since you mentioned it in the first Solaris. Kinda disappointed you didn't go with that idea because you really seemed to have foreshadowed it but this is good none the less ;)

2010-12-22 04:11:34 by Andrew:

How is XXXX more than seventy years into the future?

2020-09-09 06:26:22 by Mez:

Apollo, Helios, Ra... I like the ‘XXXX‘. I came across a similar idea in some of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, where newspaper articles in the story refer to the year as ‘18—‘.

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